Sunday 6 May 2012

Morning Glories

Barmouth is not a 24/7 town.  In fact, it's barely 9-5.  If you wake up craving a latte before work, you'd best hope that there's a pack of instant frothy coffee in the cupboard because there's no convenient Starbucks for you to buy it from.  As I walked through the town at 7:30 in the morning, everywhere was closed and silent, even the newsagents.  The only place in town that opened this early was the Co-op, no doubt because of some order from Central Office rather than because of an actual need.

I walked straight out of town towards its southern extremities.  While the railway burrows through the high cliff, the road takes a far less interesting route over the top.  Then it was a little pathway to the side and I was on the approach to Barmouth Bridge.

The bridge is for railways, mainly, but a little wooden footpath has been strung along the side.  Thank goodness for it, because the next crossing of the river is five miles upstream.  It means you feel a little frisson of smugness for being able to cross, even if it's going to cost you 70p.

The toll keeper's cottage is built across the entrance to the bridge.  It was a bit like approaching an Eastern European border crossing; I was waiting for a heavily accented man with a Kalashnikov to emerge and demand to see my papers.

I had the change ready in my hand, only to find this sign in the window of the booth:

I have to admit: I was disappointed.  Ok, I'd saved 70p, but I'd sort of liked the idea of paying the toll-keeper for my passage.  It was such an old-fashioned concept.

The bridge is almost a kilometre long, right across the mouth of the river, and is utterly straight.  The current bridge replaces one that had to be fixed in the Eighties because it was quietly rotting.  At the town end is a swing bridge, built to let ships pass through, and now used as the logo of the whole Cambrian line.

A strange thing happened as I'd stepped onto the bridge.  Barmouth had been cold and grey, but dry.  The moment I put a foot onto the wooden planks, however, a swirling, screaming tempest swept across the bay.  It was astonishing.  One minute calm, next minute, The Perfect Storm.

I staggered on, buffeted by the elements, wind clattering in and out of my ears, heavy raindrops bashing my face and head.  I pulled up the hood on my coat, against my better judgement (I hate hoods) and pulled the toggles close to keep it in place.  At one point the gales got so bad, I took my glasses off and stowed them in my pocket - I was scared they'd be whipped off my face and thrown in the water.  It was as thought I was caught up in the start of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, where the Millennium Bridge is destroyed by Death Eaters; of course, my version featured a lot less CGI.

The feeling of nefarious magic was confirmed when I reached dry land on the other side.  The storm just finished.  The clouds swung apart and the sky turned blue again.  If I've offended the Gods by crossing the bridge, I can only apologise.

The latter part of the bridge is actually a causeway, and in the triangle created between that and the land, there's a stretch of wetland covered in scrappy grass.  Sheep grazed nonchalantly on the scrub, oblivious to my struggle through the weather to reach them.  It occurred to me that lamb fed on salty sea grass would probably be incredibly tender and tasty; I immediately felt guilty for seeing them as nothing more than potential dinners.  I know as a carnivore I shouldn't be squeamish about that sort of thing, but I'm sorry: I like my lamb to look as little like a springy happy ball of wool as possible.

Morfa Mawddach station was called Barmouth Junction until the 1960s, when the closure of the Mawddach line removed the "junction" part.  That line had followed the south of the estuary, then up into the mountains past Bala Lake before terminating at Ruabon.  Some of the line still exists as heritage railways, while the part near Morfa Mawddach has been turned into a path for ramblers.  Julia Bradbury walked it in her ace Railway Walks series (and while I'm here, can I just declare my love for Ms Bradbury and her sturdy boots?).

There are still remnants of the old line if you look for them.  You can trace the raised trackbed round the corner on a flat green hillock, and the car park is edged with a surprisingly neat and tidy brick wall that looks just like an old platform.

The rest of the station was just a shelter and a platform.  Inside was a telephone, where you could make a freephone call to get train running times, and an abandoned blue and white mug.  There was also a handwritten sign sellotaped to the wall:
Lost on Friday 6th April.  1 mans gold bracelet.  Ingot style links.  Reward given if found.  Ring Jim on xxxxx.
I couldn't help thinking that I'd be quite glad if I lost that.  It reminded me of Chandler Bing ranting about "the eyesore from the Liberace house of crap!".  I settled onto the metal seats and watched a rainbow rise up over the bay.

Morfa Mawddach's a request stop, but I wasn't worried about the driver missing me; its position meant I could watch the train leave Barmouth and then track its progress all the way across the bridge.

I got off the train at Fairbourne, the next station, and waited for the train to peel off into the distance.  I was about to take my up the nose shot beneath the station when a little old lady in a red coat accosted me.  "Was that train very late or very early?"

"Erm... I think it was on time," I said apologetically.  (It was).

She was not impressed, and clearly thought I was just saying this to be contrary.  "Well, I've missed it now."  Then she muttered, "What a week," to herself and strode off, her carrier bag flapping irately at her waist.

The station building at Fairbourne's painted a patriotic Welsh green and red, but it's just a house now; you can't buy tickets anywhere on the line, just off the guard on the train.  (And Rover tickets, like the one I was using, can't be bought anywhere except staffed stations - not very good if you decide to be spontaneous).

They've turned the brick shelter into a sort of painted sea view, which seems odd to me where there's a perfectly marvellous sea view about fifty yards away.  Wouldn't it be more interesting to paint something you can't see on your doorstep?  Like the Great Wall of China, or the Taj Mahal?

My plan was to now go and wait at the bus stop for the number 38, but the lady in the red coat was staring at the timetable with a look of utter contempt, so I decided to have a bit of a wander round the village instead.  Not that there's much to see.  Fairbourne basically exists so that the local residents on the caravan park have somewhere to go and get their morning paper and an evening meal.  There's an Indian and "Sues Plaice: the Fairbourne Chippy" (yes I know there should be an apostrophe in there; perhaps the sign writer charged an extra fiver for that and Sue was on a budget).  The sign outside proudly boasted All our pies are Pukka!

Fairbourne is also the terminus of the Fairbourne Railway, which sends tiny trains round the coast, past the golf course, and onto a peninsula opposite Barmouth.  From there a ferry runs to take you back to town.  Of course, with it being a weekday in the low season, there weren't any trains running, so I just wandered past and leeched a bit of wi-fi off the Railway Cafe.

I'm not sure I would have taken a ride anyway; those carriages look extremely uncomfortable.

I thought about nipping into the Fairbourne Mini-Mart, just for a mooch round, but the proprietor was sat on the pavement outside with a mug of tea and a fag.  He gave me a suspicious look as I approached, and I deduced that he was far more interested in having a tea break than a sale, so I went back round the corner to the bus stop.  The Welsh dragon had gone so I felt safe in plonking myself down on the bench to wait for the 38.

Regular readers may be both surprised and horrified by the fact that I was waiting for a bus.  Yes, I know, I've said before on my occasions how much I hate buses.  I'd much rather walk between two stations than board a rattling diesel death machine piloted by a man who imagines he's in The Fast and the Furious every time he takes a corner.  And all that's true.  However, there are only three ways to get from Fairbourne to Llwyngwril, the next station along.  One is to take the train, and I had a two hour wait for the next one of those.  Another is to walk along the beach, which sounds like a lovely idea, except it was high tide, so it wasn't so much a "scenic route" as a "drowning opportunity".  The third is along the A493, a road which has been squeezed into the side of a hillside with the bare minimum of effort.  There was no pavement, stone walls on each side, and a tall mountain above and a speedy drop below.  Walking along that would have meant risking annihilation by cars bombing along the road and not seeing me round a corner, or alternately, death as I jumped out of the way of said car and fell down a cliff.  A bus seemed like the best of a bad lot.

As I waited at the bus stop, I muttered under my breath, practising saying Llwyngwril.  I phlegmed on the double L, as I'd been instructed to, then sort of gabbled the rest, in the hope that it sounded sort of right. Saying the "g-w-r" sounds in quick succession was giving me particular problems, so I decided to just lower my voice at that point and say the "-il" bit loudly.  I got on the bus and pronounced my destination.

The bus driver gave me a side-eyed glance, as though estimating whether my pronunciation was a deliberate insult to his Welshness or if I was just that stupid, then bashed some buttons on his ticket machine.  "Two twenty".

(Before you ask, yes, I know the Explore Mid & North Wales Ranger covers bus travel, but naturally it's only with certain bus companies, and naturally the operator of the 38 wasn't one of them).

The bus climbed up the mountainside, hurtling round tiny curves and bringing your heart to your mouth with disturbing regularity.  Just as I thought we were about to crash through a wall and hurtle into the blue sea beyond, like the Land Rover at the start of The Living Daylights, the hill to the side would reveal a sneaky exit, and we'd take a 90 degree turn to reach it.  All of this was naturally done at speeds which were pressing at the edge of the speed limit - possibly from the other side.

I climbed out at Llwyngwril, thanking a God that I don't believe in that we'd made it in one piece, and headed for the village centre.  As we'd approached it had seemed like an uninspiring place.  Ordinary semis and bungalows cascading down the hill.  Now I saw that it was far better at the centre.  It was like a boiled sweet, with a tasty middle bookended by fronds of wrapper.  (That metaphor makes a lot more sense in my head).

An old lady waved to me from the doorway of her house.  "Morning!  Cold, isn't it?" and she mimed a shiver.  There was something about the way she did it that made me want to adopt her as my new grandmother.  Llwyngwril was adorable.  It was clean, well-maintained, pretty.  I crossed the bridge over a river swollen from the previous day's rains, a torrent crashing down to the sea, white flecks of spray dancing over the rocks.

I'd hoped the village would have a cafe for me to wait for my train in.  Unfortunately, the converted church offering "tea rooms and Welsh crafts" was long closed, its windows soaped over, and another at the centre of the village was also permanently shut.  I found a spot on a wall by the war memorial, opposite a pretty little chapel with a bell mounted on its roof.  Behind me the cemetery rose up the hillside.

For a while I sat back and listened to the sound of... nothing.  Utter peace.  There were birds chirruping, of course, and the occasional mewl from a sheep, but beyond that there was no sound at all.  Finally I got up and returned to the village, towards the station.  I followed the road behind a man with a mournful looking Boxer dog.  We had a Boxer growing up, Bomber, and he was of course the most wonderful pet that has ever existed.  The dog looked up at me with mournful brown eyes as I passed, his mouth permanently downturned, and I had to resist the urge to cuddle him.

Llwyngwril station's just a shelter.  Of course, there's a fine station house right next to it, but that was sold off as a private home a long time ago.  I'm not sure why you'd want to live in a house that has a railway line as its intimate neighbour.  Not to mention the fact that people waiting for trains can stare right in through your window and pass judgement on your wallpaper.

The station was the village's dirty little secret; this was obviously where its bored youth spent their evenings.  It smelt of old sweat.  Tomato sauce had been smeared over the train running info sign, while fag butts and beer cans were scattered over the floor.  Carved into the wall is Billy woz ear 2011 and, in the bench, his slightly better educated friend had engraved Swaine was here.

A man suddenly poked his head round the corner, startling me.  "I've obviously got the wrong place - this is a mainline station, isn't it?"

I have to confess, I wasn't sure how to respond.  The Cambrian Line wasn't really what I'd have called "mainline".  He continued, "I'm looking for the Tallylyn Railway.  This isn't it, is it?"  I explained the Tallylyn Railway was a couple of stops down the line, and he thanked me and returned to his Ford.

Now I hate to be judgemental - no, really - but it would have been difficult to find a man who screamed "trainspotter" more than him.  Anorak, glasses, greying hair, a nasal whine.  It was like he'd been sent there from Central Casting.  Surely not all trainspotters are like that?  Surely there are some sexy, buff ones out there?  Ones who note down the number of a passing Sprinter between circuits at the gym?  (I am, of course, discounting myself from this generalisation).

I felt relaxed.  I felt calm.  This was all turning out to be rather easy.  I had three stations under my belt and it wasn't even lunchtime.  How hard could it get?



Robert said...

Surely not all trainspotters are like that? Surely there are some sexy, buff ones out there?


Scott Willison said...


gottago said...

Erm, why is there a set of two steps leading nowhere in the last station's waiting room? Or are they designed to be dragged to the train door so that old biddies can make their way onto the carriage with ease? Oh Wales.

Jamie said...

It occurred to me that lamb fed on salty sea grass would probably be incredibly tender and tasty

It was - I've cooked it for you and your bf.

Not that I had any, not being craven baby lamb-murdering scum.

Scott Willison said...

That explains why I'm a fan then!

gottago, yes, the steps are for people to get up to the train: the gap between the train and the platform is ridiculous.